Then did all the grants and the subsidies, the benefits and the bargain offers pass over these poverty-stricken peasants when Ingolfur Angerson’s ideals came to fruition? What is one to say? It so happens that it signifies little though a penniless crofter be offered a grant from the Treasury towards the cost of tractors and modern ploughs. Or a forty years’ loan to build a concrete house with double walls, water on tap, lino and electric light. Or a bonus on his deposits. Or a prize for cultivating a large expanse of land. Or a princely manure-cistern for the droppings from one or one and a half cows. The fact is that it is utterly pointless to make anyone a generous offer unless he is a rich man; rich men are the only people who can accept a generous offer. To be poor is simply the peculiar human condition of not being able to take advantage of a generous offer. The essence of being a poor peasant is the inability to avail oneself of the gifts which politicians offer or promise and to be left at the mercy of ideals which only make the rich richer and the poor poorer.
From Independent People by Halldor Laxness
In this excellent book by the Icelandic Noble Prize Winner we are told the story of one man, Bjartur, a sheep farmer and crofter, who fights for his independence. All through the book he refuses charity and he refuses to get enmeshed in debt. He is suspicious of his betters and all their grand ideas to improve his life.
But finally things go too well. The First World War drives up the price of mutton and the growing cooperative movement in Iceland sweeps away the merchants and seems to offer cheap loans and grants – all to bring benefits to the farmer. So Bjartur relents, he takes a loan, he builds a house and – when the economy changes – he loses everything.
Laxness reflects on this terrible paradox – only the rich can afford to take risk accepting all these kind offers – partly because only the rich are insured against the problems that arise when things fall apart.
Today we see the same phenomenon. We are now living an age of austerity where the recent economic bubble has burst. But the price of that bubble cannot be paid by the banks – for they are too important to fail. The price cannot paid by home owners or the middle-classes – despite the fact that over-inflation in house values was at the root of the economic crisis – for their votes are too important to politicians for them to be allowed to suffer.
So who must suffer? It turns out that the poor and people with disabilities – while not responsible for the crisis – must pay the price for it.